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Cricket lovers protesting in Ahmedabad after three players were arrested for spot-fixing. Photo: Ajit Solanki/AP
Cricket lovers protesting in Ahmedabad after three players were arrested for spot-fixing. Photo: Ajit Solanki/AP

BCCI failed to nip spot-fixing in the bud

The menace of fixing has become more insidious, if not more widespread, and the board has failed to be vigilant enough

The spectre of spot-fixing in cricket has raised its head again and it is clear that matters have hardly moved forward from the last time this menace came to light. The sport is still under grave threat.

If anything, the recent event suggests that methods to cheat have become more insidious and the damage to the fabric of the sport could be deeper (considering that some bookies and conduits have turned out to be former India first-class players), if not more widespread.

The investigation by the Delhi Police into players allegedly being paid by bookies in the ongoing Indian Premier League (IPL) opens the door on an unseemly and dangerous world in which the criminal element—from outside and within—conspires to dislodge fair play and probity, and make-believe is passed off as fact to an unsuspecting public.

How does one tackle this menace? The Board of Control for Cricket In India (BCCI) has been roundly—and largely justifiably—trashed for its inaction in instituting robust controls, checks and balances against corruption. Considering past experience, this was mandatory. But it is pertinent to acknowledge that the breach of faith by players is the crux.

Greed is the springboard from which fixing takes place, and if it is happening on the field of play, the onus is well-defined. This frailty is easily understood in the context of the human race, but difficult to detect when moving away from sermonizing and getting into specifics.

How does one detect fixing in cricket? Are there telltale signs that one can look out for? Is there any way of identifying players most likely to cheat?

The history of sport suggests it is impossible to predict who has a propensity to cheat. For instance, it is simplistic to blame marginal players as the more vulnerable, but as the 2000 cricket match-fixing scandal revealed, stars and captains of several countries were involved.

Where spot-fixing is concerned, detection becomes even more difficult. Since the outcome of a match is not being influenced, a collection of players is not necessary; one person is enough.

The problem in cricket is that almost every element integral to the texture and rhythm of game can be “fixed" if a player (or umpire) so decides, and nobody need be the wiser. Even seasoned pros like Rahul Dravid and Shane Watson, I would imagine, had no clue to what Ajit Chandila, S. Sreesanth and Ankeet Chavan were allegedly up to.

That said, understanding human proclivity to stray from the straight and narrow, and given past experience, how the administration measures up to this challenge is no less significant. Spot-fixing may be impossible to detect but constant vigilance cannot hurt; indeed, it is imperative. This is where the BCCI has flopped.

Several of the top-notchers in the Indian cricket administration are lawyers, politicians, businessmen, etc., who should have enough “life-experience" to at least understand that with huge money also comes huge temptation, and the threat of corruption is inevitably only a step behind.

Instead, the BCCI—in typical blustering and disdainful style—paid lip service to the threat, put in perfunctory controls and decided that the millions of dollars filling its coffers, the TRP, or television, ratings and the IPL’s heady cocktail of glitz, glamour and hoopla, were the panacea to any problem. In effect the culture of the IPL reflected a looseness which reduced the fear of wrongdoers.

Strong signals of impending problems were addressed in a namby-pamby manner. A few years ago Paul Condon, former head of Scotland Yard and first chief of the International Cricket Council’s, or ICC’s, Anti Corruption Security Unit, had warned that the nature of Twenty20 cricket, the presence of international players, the crowd interest and the enormous amounts of money floating around meant that the IPL was susceptible to spot-fixing.

When a sting operation by a TV channel last year suggested that corruption in the IPL could be below the radar, involving fringe players, it created a minor stir and was then forgotten—only to come home to roost damagingly this season.

Despite the big crowds that have come to see the play-offs, the BCCI is kidding itself if it believes the damage is limited. Brand IPL has taken a beating. How serious the dent is remains to be seen, but sponsors, advertisers et al are reviewing their association with it.

The problem has been compounded by Sahara pulling out of not just this tournament, but also the sponsorship of the Indian team after this year. The dispute between the BCCI and Sahara is a long-standing one and unrelated to the spot-fixing scam, but its departure will hurt.

If the IPL goes back to eight teams, it loses out on substantial money; if it invites bids for a replacement, it is unlikely to get the same valuation which will antagonize all other franchises too. Yes, this is the worst time to go shopping for a Team India sponsor.

Yet it is the fan the BCCI must worry about most. The edifice of sport is raised on implicit trust in its practitioners and administrators. Deficit of this trust mocks not just the sport but also its supporters—fans and sponsors. A total collapse of credibility can make the enterprise unsustainable.

Going ahead, the BCCI’s task is to restore credibility: not just of the IPL, but its own, and that of the sport. The board needs to open itself up to greater transparency and put in structures that rebuild trust. Even if untrue, the widely held perception is that the cricket board is a brotherhood indulging in all kinds of shenanigans.

I am against government control of the BCCI, but to my mind there is no reason why it cannot agree to come under the Right to Information Act. It may be a private body, but its activities involve and affect the lives of millions.

Where the IPL is concerned, apart from the shareholding patterns and financial dealings of franchises being put in the public domain, the governing council needs to have a couple of independent directors and an ombudsman. It also needs a full-time commissioner dedicated to the task of running a robust sports league, not someone canoodling with the rich, powerful and glamorous.

As a first step, however, I would recommend iconic cricketers like Sachin Tendulkar, M.S. Dhoni, Dravid, Ricky Ponting, Sourav Ganguly and V.V.S. Laxman end their reticence—or the BCCI imposed silence—to speak out against cheats in the sport.

It’s not enough to say “I’m all right, Jack" and let the devil take the hindmost.

Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.

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